School choice the way out of catchment woes

Imagine if you could only eat out at the food store or cafe nearest to your home.

If that food outlet happened to be a bakery and you can’t eat gluten, bad luck. If it was a dodgy takeaway where you suspect the owners give pride-of-place to the visiting rats out the back, that’s also tough.

That might sound ludicrous, but it is essentially the situation with public schools in NSW. If you send your child to a public school, most likely it has to be the one nearest to your home.

This is fine for those parents whose nearest public school has great staff, good facilities and happens to focus on the things parents want. It is also no concern to parents who can afford to send t heir children to private schools or move to a suburb with a top-notch public school. And of course it doesn’t bother those parents who are not too fussed about their child’s school at all.

But for parents who are engaged in their children’s education, who find themselves in the wrong suburb, and who can’t afford to move or pay private school fees, the situation is oppressive.

A centrally planned education system in which public school kids must attend the closest school is really no more acceptable than requiring people to only eat out at their nearest cafe or takeaway. We would never accept being forced to eat at a local cafe that only offered stale sandwiches or a takeaway that offered refugee status to salmonella, and yet we might have no option but to send our children to the local public where telling kids about the evils of US President Donald J. Trump takes priority over teaching them to read and write.If we actually were obliged to eat only at the nearest cafe or takeaway, there’d be no risk that poor cafes or takeaways would fail or their staff would lose their job. And with no ability to attract more customers, there would be no opportunity for good cafes or takeaways to expand, hire more staff and open another store.

It’s much the same with schools. With a captive and fixed market there is little incentive to attract new students, improve educational performance or hire more staff. But if the public school zoning policy was abolished so that public schools could accept kids from out of their school zone as freely as kids from within the zone, principals and teachers would risk redundancy if enrolments plummeted. If enrolments jumped, they might get a pay rise and additional facilities. In that case, parents, children, good principals and good teachers would be the winners, and only those principals and teachers as dodgy as a dodgy takeaway would need to worry.

David Leyonhjelm is a senator for the Liberal Democrats

First appeared in The Daily Telegraph 31/01/2019